Good tidings for readers (not to mention writers and publishers) of Jewish fiction: There’s a newcomer on the Jewish literary-prize scene. In an announcement released today, the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) named Rachel Kadish the inaugural winner of its Jewish Fiction Award for her novel The Weight of Ink (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Honor-book recognition went to two additional titles: Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan by Ruth Gilligan (Tin House Books) and A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert (Pantheon Books).
A volunteer-run nonprofit organization, AJL was established in 1966; as its website explains, it “promotes Jewish literacy through enhancement of libraries and library resources and through leadership for the profession and practitioners of Judaica librarianship. The Association fosters access to information, learning, teaching and research relating to Jews, Judaism, the Jewish experience and Israel.” The Jewish Fiction Award joins a roster of AJL prizes, which include the well-known Sydney Taylor Book Awards for children’s and teen literature and awards for Judaica librarianship and reference works.
The new prize seeks to recognize “works of fiction with significant Jewish thematic content” published each calendar year for an adult readership. Eligible books must have been written in English and be available for purchase in the United States. Thanks to underwriting from Dan Wyman Books, the award includes a $1,000 cash prize, as well as support to attend the AJL’s Annual Conference, which in 2018 will be held in Boston.
In an exclusive interview with Tablet, Award Committee member Rachel Kamin said that for judging purposes, “significant Jewish thematic content” means that Judaism (or Jewish identity, history, culture, etc.) must be “a central part of the book.” She suggested one way to determine the significance of any book’s Jewish content: If you were to remove the Jewish element(s), would the work change? If a major character’s Jewishness is more incidental than essential to the narrative, for example, the book might still be considered “Jewish”; it might offer a fine choice for a Jewish book group or library collection. But it’s unlikely to win this new award.
Indeed, it’s this extensive Jewish component, along with literary merit, that matters to the AJL Fiction Award Committee; an author’s identity and the book’s setting do not. Some readers may find it noteworthy that none of this year’s honored books is set in the United States: Kadish’s The Weight of Ink alternates between seventeenth- and early-twenty-first-century England; Gilligan’s work depicts Jewish life in Ireland; and Seiffert’s is set in a Nazi-occupied Ukrainian town. Kadish is an American novelist; the Dublin-born Gilligan lives in England, as does Seiffert, who was born in Oxford. Moreover, Kadish is the only self-identified Jewish writer among the three authors. (Gilligan has appeared on Unorthodox as a featured “Gentile of the Week”; Seiffert has written and spoken openly about her family history, which includes, on her mother’s side, German grandparents who were Nazis.)
One aspect of Kadish’s book that clearly resonated with the AJL judges—though Kamin was careful to note that it’s by no means a requirement—is its emphasis on learning, libraries, archivists, and librarians. Anyone who reads the novel will instantly understand: From the seventeenth-century rabbis, philosophers, and protagonist-scribe who inhabit one narrative line to the modern-day researchers and conservators peopling another, The Weight of Ink presents a cast of characters animated by a love for knowledge and a commitment to advancing and transmitting it. Combined with its other strengths, this quality makes The Weight of Ink, as Kamin said, a “perfect” inaugural winner.